The Rules of Scriptural Reasoning

Garrett Green
Connecticut College

In this response to Peter Ochs’ letter-essay, I want to explore a set of issues that it has spurred. I am convinced that what I have to say is compatible with Ochs’ remarks, perhaps even implicit in them. But rather than trying to saddle him with my ideas, I will simply take responsibility myself for what his remarks have inspired. I was not part of the original organization of SSR but have been a sympathetic observer and sometime participant in its meetings almost from the outset. Ochs has tried to articulate a certain commonality among members of SSR and has proposed that we pause this year to reflect on what we have in common and where we go from here. In that spirit I accept his invitation to respond with “your own versions or partial versions of rules for SR.” (I)

Let me begin with an observation about our common environment in late modern academia. It is impossible to be part of a college, university, or theological seminary in our world today without being bombarded by official and unofficial talk of “diversity”,”multi-culturalism,” “the Other,” and similar catch-phrases of decaying liberal modernity. I want to suggest that SSR take up these themes authentically, as an alternative to the ironically perverse way they have come to function in our universities and seminaries namely, to stifle diversity, to silence genuinely other voices, and to suppress dissent by pressuring everyone to pay lip service to a generalized rhetoric of “otherness.” I therefore propose a challenge to members of the SSR: that we take seriously the otherness within our own ranks by making it the explicit theme of our reflection. SSR could thereby become a model for a different kind of “interfaith dialogue”: one that takes our unity as something hoped for but not presupposed, and that therefore confronts our differences unflinchingly. This approach obviously entails risk, for we may discover that the terms we hoped would unite us scripture, reasoning, etc. in fact divide us. But if we agree with Ochs that “that the form of reflection is specific to a given context” (1) , do we have any choice? It was the coming of Muslims into our discussions that first called my attention to this question. I doubt that I was the only one to sense that a kind of comfortable familiarity among the Jewish and Christian members of the group could no longer be presupposed. Maybe we do not all approach faith, scripture, or reasoning in quite the same way. Perhaps there are differences between us that cannot so easily be overlooked or dismissed with well-intentioned professions of mutual good will, but will require hard, risky work, perhaps for a long time to come.

To state the problem baldly: if in fact the specific form of reflection is specific to the context of reflection, why would we suppose that “scriptural reasoning” is something held in common by Jews, Christians, and Muslims? Is not it far more likely that a term like “scripture,” so important to all three traditions, will for that very reason mean something different perhaps radically different in each case? If so, then it is essential that we confront those differences and clarify them, so that we at least do not talk past one another by unintentionally using the same words in different ways. It is not my intent to be pessimistic or to question the value of the SSR as a forum for discussion of these issues. On the contrary, I want us to be realistic about the differences separating us and thereby to avoid the pitfalls of the kind of “interfaith dialogue” that achieves the appearance of unity by the vague generality of its formulations and by ignoring the divisive issues. Far from being pessimistic, I am greatly encouraged by what I sense to be a common commitment in the SSR, though perhaps unarticulated, that we seek commonality in our diverse traditions precisely by taking orthodoxy seriously that is, we want to reach a kind of mutual understanding that does not require participants to sacrifice the strong claims of their faith as the price of dialogue with others.

This brings me to what we have in common. One of the contributions of Ochs’ thoughtful essay was its attempt to articulate some areas of agreement that have characterized those drawn to the SSR. Here s my summary of those commonalities:

First, we share an understanding of the situation of our religious communities in the twilight of modernity. In other words, as different as our religious contexts may be, we do in fact share a common context as participants in the late modern world. We also agree that this context confronts us with a serious challenge, especially by forcing us into a devil s choice between secular universalism and reactionary orthodoxy. Here perhaps is one point where I would suggest a different emphasis from Ochs. He says, “things are so bad that, for the moment, our differences are less interesting than our need to share resources in confronting overlapping crises” (3) . My suggestion, odd as it may sound, is that we might better discover those resources precisely by taking an unblinking look at the most apparently intractable differences between us.

A second area of commonality among us is our allegiance to a scriptural tradition. Even if it is true that we do not understand scripture in precisely the same ways, it is nevertheless significant that it is to scripture that each of us turns in search of solutions to our late modern conundrums. I suspect, in fact, that the members of the SSR tend to come from those subgroups within their religious traditions that stress the importance of scripture. Here may be just one of the points at which, for all our religious differences, we are more like one another than like our fellow Jews, Christians, or Muslims.

Ochs suggests a third area of similarity among us: our characteristic way of responding to the late modern dilemma. Unlike so many of our orthodox brethren, we do not see the “postmodern turn” as an automatic enemy. We might call this shared trait a postmodern hopefulness. And once again, this attitude makes us more like each other than like many in our particular religious tradition.

A final area of agreement worth mentioning is signaled by the “R” in SSR: we, unlike so many religious people today, are convinced that the way to repair the ruptures of modernity is by engaging our reason, not by one of the ever-popular varieties of anti-intellectualism. Ochs has provided us with two useful mottoes for this aspect of our consensus: “The pragmatic reasoning of SR is a redemptive reasoning” <a href=" and “SSR is a revitalization movement” (B) . Perhaps we could see our task as a kind of postmodern correlate to the premodern (medieval) agreement among our three traditions that “reason” may designate an arena in which we can learn from each other.

Let me close with a practical suggestion for acting on these assumptions. In the future, let us complement this reflection on the rules of what we are doing by delving concretely into the specifics of our theological traditions at just those points where they most appear to come into conflict. What if we “scriptural reasoners” actually read and interpreted some scriptural texts together? Ochs has given us one way to conceive this task. Even if our theological understandings of scripture vary significantly, we might be able to agree on a functional definition of scripture as those texts that provide us a point of entry into the “A-reasonings” underlying our theological reflections. In other words, might we be able to agree on the task scripture performs even while allowing for considerable variation at the level of “B- reasonings” ?

One final rationale for my proposal to concentrate on difference: it is the postmodern thing to do! I hope that the SSR has the strength to endure difference and not to rush into premature reconciliations. Part of our consensus about the late modern predicament, I suspect, is a shared sympathy with the postmodern suspicion of premature closure (“hostility towards metanarratives, etc.”). Vive la difference!

© 2002, Society for Scriptural Reasoning